Icy wonderland at the Vatnajökull glacier

The Vatnajökull is the biggest glacier in Iceland, the third largest plateau glacier on earth and is only beaten by Greenland and antarctica. Quite a lot of superlatives. We’re only past the mountains at Vik at the southernmost tip of Iceland and still have to drive for more than two hours by car when we see the massive glacier in the distance. It does not surprise that the glacier covers 8% of Iceland’s surface. That seems like a small number but only until you realize that a glacier which in some places is 1000 metres thick covers almost 1/10 of the whole country.

It goes without saying that a glacier of this size holds a variety of landscapes and adventures for those who come to discover them. The most famous place the Vatnajökull created is the Jökulsarlon, a lagoon south of the glacier directly by the ring road. From here you can start your tours to the ice caves beneath the glacier, boat tours on the lagoon in the summer, trips to the glacier arms or take a walk to the lava beach.

First, the glacier ice caves

We booked this tour with Glacier Guides, wo pick us up at the café by the lagoon. With a monstrous truck we cross the snowy land between the ring road and the glacier, where the water from the glacier washes caves into the ice every year. The drive itself is an adventure. Where any other car would just get stuck in the snow, the massive tires of this truck dig their way through the deep snow. Rollercoaster time.

Halfway there we meet a truck coming back from the glacier. We stop and a glacier guide jumps in from the other vehicle and takes over our group. I’m a bit groggy when getting out of the truck by the caves. Our guide hands out spikes for our shoes because the ground is slippery.


Then comes the shock. By the entrance of the cave I again realize that there seldomly is a place like this that you can have to a small group. The cave is so overcrowded it is hard to find a spot. People stumble over tripods and step on each others toes. I guess everyone crashed at least three pictures that day.

The glacier truck
The entrance to the cave
Crowds in the cave

The cave itself is fascinating, though. It is almost a bit scary to stand here under the thick blue ice with a glacier above. And then we get lucky. A film team comes into the cave and ushers everyone out for a couple of minutes. We’re the first to go back in and get a few good shots of the empty cave. And for a very short moment the caves shows its magic beauty.

Ice cave beneath the glacier
Blue ice

On our way back to the ring road we stop again and our glacier guide leaves the vehicle and jumps into the oncoming truck. Insane how precisely timed the schedule is and how many tourist are brought into the caves like this. On this trip I have seen more people than on my whole trip to Iceland in 2006. Iceland is booming.

Put it on the bucket list?

I will put it like this: The cave is awesome, although it is small. It does not meet the expectation created by the images on the glacier guides website. Still, what nature created here beneath the glacier is beautiful and magical.
The trip to the cave however is much too expensive for what it offers. With my guide basically jumping between moving trucks and a small cave filled with 200 people, a price of 176€ per person is way too much.

For comparison: For the same amount of money I snorkeled through the Silfra fissure in a very small group, snorkelling gear included, entrance to the national park, photo service, hot chocolate, cookies and a guide who took care of us from start to finish.
If I had to decide between those two, it would be Silfra.

Back to the lagoon

A trip to the lagoon is always worth the trip, weather you decide to visit the caves or not. In winter the lagoon is filled with ice, in the summer there are boat trips crossing the lagoon. Crystal clear ice floats through the water as it makes its way from the glacier arm to the exit of the lagoon and towards the open sea. A truly beautiful spectacle. If not for another great spectacle just a stone’s throw away, we’d just stay and watch.

Glacier lagoon
Glacier Lagoon
Glacier Lagoon

There is another highlight though. Through a short channel under the ring road the ice blocks from the lagoon are carried into the open sea and are pushed back onto the long lava beach by the waves. As the sun slowly sets we trudge through the black sand. The beach is endless, there is tons of ice and it seems not all the tourists from the lagoon have found the way down here. So just a couple of metres down the shore the beach is almost deserted and I settle down for some photography experiments.

Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Lava Beach

As the sun lights up the ice, it looks like a million diamonds on the beach. The ice blocks crash against each other and sing a wonderful song. Water splashes over the blocks and with every wave new ice is washed ashore and paints a new picture into the landscape. This breathtaking spectacle is for free and lasts as long as you want it to. As the blue hour sets in, the magic continues and so we stay until all clothes are wet and our feet are freezing cold.

Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Lava Beach
Light painting

Crystal clear ice on a black lava beach, this is unparalleled on this planet. On a scale from 1 to 10 this is a 12… at least. Whether with or without glacier caves, the Jökulsarlon is a must see.

  • From Reykjavik the tour to Jökulsarlon takes about 4-5 hours by car in good weather conditions. A day trip is not recommended, rather plan a night near the lagoon
  • According to rumors, the lagoon is pretty much free of ice, however I have not visited it in the summer, so I’m thankful for all opinions on this 

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